Cubs bullpen fills in for Justin Steele in 9-8 win over the Rockies

The conditions were far from ideal. Cubs right-hander Ben Brown kept blowing into his closed fist to keep his pitching hand warm. It was 36 degrees at first pitch Wednesday and rained intermittently.

Brown put together the best outing of his young major-league career.

In the Cubs’ 9-8 win against the Rockies Wednesday, Brown took on the bulk of the innings on a bullpen day. He limited Colorado to three hits in four-plus innings and was charged with one run. With the victory, the Cubs completed a three-game sweep in their first home series of the season.

Wednesday was originally lined up to be lefty Justin Steele’s second start. Since his left hamstring injury on Opening Day, Steele has been recovering well and playing catch – which should help his buildup when he’s fully cleared. But the Cubs are bracing to be without him for at least the month of April. Wednesday was the first big hurdle.

“I feel like every time we say we have pitching depth, something happens,” pitching coach Tommy Hottovy said over the weekend. “And to be going through probably one of our hardest stretches of the season coming out of the gate without Justin Steele, without Jameson Taillon, it’s definitely a test to the depth that we have. But also we have a lot of young guys that are ready to prove something.”

On paper, the Rockies are by far the easiest matchup the Cubs have in the first three weeks of the season. They opened the season in Texas, facing the defending World Series champions. Next, the Cubs take on the star-laden Dodgers at Wrigley Field. Beginning Monday, the Cubs embark on a nine-game road trip to San Diego, Seattle and Arizona.

Taillon (strained back) is scheduled to begin a minor-league rehab assignment, likely starting for Double-A Tennessee on Sunday. But manager Craig Counsell said the Cubs are planning for Taillon to make multiple rehab appearances before returning from the injured list. So, the Cubs still will likely have to fill two more open start dates on the West Coast road trip if they want to keep most of their starters on a six-day rotation.

“I think it’s important,” Hottovy said. “But I think also what we want to do early is try to limit the amount of times guys go on five days’ rest back-to-back. We know it’s going to happen, there’s going to be guys who are going to throw on normal rest. But if we can do that once and then get back on to that six-day, I think it’s just going to help prolong stuff down the road. That plays for everybody, and we’ve noticed that, especially early in the season, being able to get guys that extra day is so valuable.”

Brown is one of those young guys Hottovy mentioned, who has something to prove. The Cubs recalled him when they put Steele on the 15-day IL Saturday, and he debuted out of the bullpen that same day. But after throwing a scoreless inning, he came back out and allowed six runs, exiting with two outs.

“Hopefully some of the feelings you have that are maybe unique – that first time you’re in the big leagues, it’s just different; no matter what, it’s going to be different – those are gone,” Counsell said before the game Wednesday. “And then I think every player understands, there are better players here, this is a better league, I’ve got to be just a little bit better. I don’t have to be any different, but they’re going to make me pay for mistakes a little more, a little more competitive on every pitch. So it’s really subtle adjustments that you just keep trying to make, and as you pinch more, you get you make those adjustments.”

On Wednesday, Brown took over for opener Luke Little after the left-hander threw a perfect first inning. Brown then faced the minimum in three out of the next four innings. He faced one more batter in the sixth, allowing a leadoff double to the Rockies’ Jacob Stallings. Stallings later scored, accounting for the only run surrendered by Brown.

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